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For Against Interpretation

AnotherAbby's picture

With Susan Sontag’s essay, I feel like one of the only “tools” that I can use, and certainly the only tool she would have me use, is the believing game. I am listening to every word she says without pushing back, poking holes, and pointing out the flaws in her argument, and I am going to do my best to see what she has to say by believing her.

The line that most affected me in this piece was: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous”. I think that that, more than anything else, is the strongest argument she makes against interpretation. Trying to quantify art as a collection of logical pieces carefully put together to make a picture denies art the simple ability “to be”. Interpretation stifles the emotional response to a painting, and thus, real art makes us nervous because it gives us an emotional reaction, which we are not used to. The act of interpretation of art is like the person in the horror movie who breaks everything down step-by-step, saying “Oh you can totally see the wires on that thrown machete”,  “That blood is just corn syrup and red food dye—it’s so fake”, or “The murderer is clearly the creepy janitor whose son died there years before”. They’re the people who need to rationalize and dissect every part of the horror movie in order to protect themselves from getting scared, like how we’re less scared of the mighty Wizard of Oz after we start paying attention to the man behind the curtain. The fear of the floating head is exciting, and frightening—the little man from Kansas moving levers is not. That need to inject reason into every situation leads to the rejection of the emotional response in favor of the safer, intellectual route, which leads to a denial of what Sontag describes as the true experience of art—one that is confusing and possibly scary, but worthwhile.


I suppose I could do many activities with Sontag’s ideas in mind. She would probably want me to go to an art gallery and cry at the sheer majesty, frankly. Which I definitely could do, and maybe have my first experience with Deep Play. She probably would also be in favor of me writing a posthumous letter to Barnes about all the ways in which he was wrong about art interpretation, although that’s less of a trip and more of an activity.

I think the best activity, however, would be to go into the city and made a piece of art. Draw a building. Make a sculpture. Take photos. Make art, connect with it, and think about how it could absurdly be interpreted. It would be best to sit in the city, pay attention to what’s happening in the present as opposed to what’s going to happen next, and more or less try to capture the soul of the city in a piece of art.